Director: Robert Rodriguez
Stars: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Keean Johnson
Back in the 90’s, the OAV (Original Animated Video) was one of the best ways of encountering high-concept Japanese anime, and Battle Angel: Alita was one of the crown jewels of the era. Based on the manga series Gunnm by Yukito Kishiro, it saw a young female cyborg reconstructed by her Geppetto-like father figure under the shadow of a distant utopian state. James Cameron was clearly quite enchanted by the idea, as he’s been trying to get a live action version of the story made for two decades now.
Preoccupied with his Avatar movies, Cameron eventually passed directorial duties over to Robert Rodriguez, whose spotty career (especially of late) has at least shown great tenacity in the face of adversity. Irritatingly reversing the title, Rodriguez’s Alita: Battle Angel is his most ambitious work, but also his most anonymous. Save for a couple of cameos from regular actors Jeff Fahey and Michelle Rodriguez, there’s little here to stamp the film as his. Alita is Cameron’s through-and-through, from the lumpen, cack-handed script to the testosterone pumping, fetishistic depiction of heavy machinery.
Alita – with digitally enlarged eyes – is played by newcomer Rosa Salazar; easily the best thing about this hot mess. From the off she raises expectations through a spirited and heartfelt performance. Indeed, if any audience group is going to get something out of this movie, it’s middle aged fathers of young daughters, who will almost certainly melt with feels for the relationship between Alita and Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz). Waltz is guileless here, playing a tinkerer with unwavering love for his new child.
The movie revels in unabashed schmaltz through its opening act. It’s very cheesy, but in an unapologetic way that asks an audience to put aside cynicism and go with it. The movie’s heart is as robust as its heroine’s. Still, even in these early stages you can feel the different sensibilities of source and reinvention causing friction with one another. The Japanese original was tough and bloody. The soft edged Hollywood mannerisms of Rodriguez/Cameron’s Alita creates a woozy disconnect. The movie veers between extremes, tottering drunkenly through a storyline that, having been plagiarised in the intervening years, no longer feels new at all.
While I’m loathe to condense a movie into a ‘x meets y’ soundbite, the resulting picture is like an attempt to make a YA Blade Runner that’s wound up more akin to the Super Mario Bros. movie. Character designs grow more and more grotesque as the story progresses, and the characters themselves more and more obnoxious. It’s a toss-up who violates the screen more comprehensively; Ed Skrein’s abysmal mo-hawk wearing bounty hunter Zapan or Jackie Earle Haley’s robo-meathead Grewishka. Whenever either is on screen you’ll be yearning for them not to be. The sheer ugliness of Alita refuses to let up.
And as good as Salazar is, she is lumbered with an outright terrible love interest. Keean Johnson’s Hugo is like a young Shia LaBeouf with any semblance of charm excised. He’s a very bad young actor; wooden and so stubbornly uninteresting that his performance almost turns in on itself, becoming fascinating for how terminally vacant it is. On the flip side, perhaps the most frustrating waste of genuine resource is Mahershala Ali, who’s villainous Vector is totally confusing. He’s a member of the social elite who has fashioned a system of reward that revolves around, essentially… roller derby? And he’s also host to what now? Even ineffectual henchwoman Jennifer Connolly looks confused.
Alita has a lot of explaining to do, and Cameron’s script topples it out at you like a dump truck arriving at landfill. Cluttered explanations pile up like so much junk. You feel like Dr. Ido yourself, sifting through it all for some kernel of importance. And then, before you know it, the main arc of the plot has become a very real cross between Elysium and The Phantom Menace. On the one hand it’s almost impressive to see a sci-fi film this bonkers land in multiplexes with so much money invested in it, on the other it’s a lot of shit to have shoveled at you all at once. Alita comes to look like a colossal folly. And then a late reveal worryingly suggests that, in keeping with Cameron’s titanium self-confidence, he intends to milk this idea just as hard as his adventures on Pandora. Do not expect resolution, folks.
Cameron lives inside his own bubble, it seems. Rodriguez has been his puppet. Alita feels totally removed from any understanding of cultural zeitgeist, from the weird way in which it suddenly sexualises its child-like lead character, to just how many of the action scenes here pander to Cameron’s torpedoed gimmick, 3D. The film feels ten years old already. After a promising start, Alita is crushed under its own ungainly weight. A further couple of comparisons, in terms of quality? It’s about par with Jupiter Ascending and the Ghost In The Shell remake.